Cyrano de Bergerac as a Virtuoso Play
Many critics have called Cyrano a virtuoso play, saying that it was written especially to capitalize upon the sundry talents of the famous French actor, Constant Coquelin. There is, of course, a precedent for thinking that Rostand wrote Cyrano with Coquelin in mind; he had previously written La Samaritaine specifically for Sarah Bernhardt. In addition, the dedication of the play, which reads, "It was to the Soul Of CYRANO that I intended to dedicate this poem. But since that soul has been reborn in you, COQUELIN, it is to you that I dedicate it," has also been pointed to as evidence that the play is a virtuoso play. If this dedication were written prior to production or publication of the play in the hope that such flattery would entice Coquelin to play the leading role, then it may well support this view. If, on the other hand, the dedication were written after production of the play, then it is more likely to be simply Rostand's way of thanking Coquelin for a job well done.
Another area that must be examined in any attempt to decide whether or not Cyrano was a virtuoso play is concerned with the main character of the play. In most, if not all, virtuoso plays the character is created to fit the abilities of the chosen actor. In Cyrano, Rostand did not create a character for Coquelin; indeed, he did not even distort the character of the historical Cyrano. If anything, the real Cyrano is less believable than Rostand's character. The only exaggeration of the character on stage is the size of his nose, and this is necessary in order that the audience may be able to see that the nose really is quite prodigious. One might object that the main character in La Samaritaine is a well-known character, Mary Magdalene. However, very little is known about Mary Magdalene, so Rostand was free to create a character to fit the unique capabilities of an actress such as Sarah Bernhardt.
Actually, Cyrano was probably the result of the happy conjunction of three things: the existence and availability of a virtuoso actor such as Coquelin, the rediscovery of the historical Cyrano, and the personality and ability of a playwright such as Rostand. As a man of the theater, Rostand was certainly acquainted with Coquelin and with the actor's great histrionic talent. That the playwright was interested in history is attested to by his choice of subjects for most of his other plays, and it is quite obvious that he was familiar with the recently discovered material dealing with his character's historical counterpart. And Rostand's own poetic and romantic nature might easily have created a desire in him to act as the catalytic agent that would bring the actor and the story together on the stage. In all probability, what happened was that Rostand's interests and personality made him want to write a play based upon the person whose exploits as a poet and soldier had just been brought to light. At the same time, luckily, he recognized in Coquelin the perfect actor to play the role.
Perhaps the final determination of whether or not Cyrano is a virtuoso play rests on the answer to one question: "Would Rostand have written Cyrano if there had been no Coquelin to play the part?" We shall never know the answer to that question. And that is unfortunate, because a playwright does not write a virtuoso play in the same way that he writes any other play. In a virtuoso play, the playwright includes bits of dialogue, action, and even entire scenes for the sole reason that his chosen actor can do those particular things exceptionally well. And often these elements contribute nothing to characterization or plot. In reading Cyrano, the student might do well to examine it carefully and decide for himself whether or not the internal evidence indicates that Rostand inserted such elements.